WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 14, 2017)—Biblical Sidon is perhaps most infamously known as the birthplace of the Phoenician princess Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31), who became queen of the Israelites during King Ahab’s reign in the ninth century B.C.E. (the Iron Age). In the Bible, Jezebel is notorious for persecuting the worship of Yahweh and for demanding that the Israelites worship Baal. Given Jezebel’s religious fervor in the Bible, one would expect to find evidence of Baal worship at Sidon. Some extraordinary discoveries from recent excavations have allowed us to partially reconstruct Sidonian religion during the Bronze and Iron Ages—showing that Baal worship at the site had deep roots.
Claude Doumet-Serhal of the British Museum details recent excavations at Sidon in her article “Sidon—Canaan’s Firstborn” published in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. The latest archaeological discoveries shed light on Biblical Sidon and provide a window into the Sidonians’ identity, polytheistic religion and worship practices during the Bronze and Iron Ages.
Those familiar with the Biblical text will recall that Sidon (a seaport on the Mediterranean Sea in modern Lebanon) was an influential, wealthy Phoenician city when the kings of Israel and Judah ruled during the Iron Age. Yet Sidon was a significant site before this period, too.
During the Bronze Age, the inhabitants of Sidon were Canaanites. They shared numerous similarities, including many of the same gods, with their close neighbors in the southern Levant—who were also predominantly Canaanite. The Sidonians of the Iron Age were Phoenicians. Essentially, the Phoenicians were the Canaanites who survived from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age and who were not supplanted by new people groups (Philistines, Israelites, etc.). However, even though their origins were Canaanite, the Phoenicians established their own distinct culture.
An impressed handle found at the ancient city depicts Sidon’s storm god and a ship. Dated to c. 1750 B.C.E. (the Middle Bronze Age, when the site was Canaanite), the handle pictures the storm god as a leonine dragon. Usually the storm god is illustrated as a striding human figure, but sometimes he is represented by one of his symbols, such as the bull or leonine dragon. This find supports the claim that throughout its history, the most important god at Sidon was the storm god—known during the Phoenician period as Baal or Bel.